“Time was what held the world together,” thinks 11-year old Byron Hemmings in Rachel Joyce’s “Perfect.” “It kept life as it should be.”
But it is 1972, and time is about to change with the first addition of two “leap seconds” designed to align time to Earth’s rotation. And once time has proved itself as mutable and unreliable as anything else man-made, Byron finds the rest of his world going askew.
Joyce’s dark, quiet follow-up to her successful debut, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” could easily become a book club favorite. It’s ripe for discussion about social class, gender roles and mental illness. More philosophically, it’s a warning about our search for perfection and control in an imperfect and uncontrollable world.
Byron’s story alternates with the present-day narrative of Jim, a middle-aged man severely constrained by obsessive-compulsive disorder. Jim has built a small and safe life, threatened only by his own mental illness, until he meets Eileen, whose charisma and confident imperfection both attract and terrify him. He sees her as “the sole place that is big enough to contain his chaos.” The full connection between his life and Byron’s is — perhaps unfairly — kept from us until the end, but Jim is so sympathetically lost and overwhelmed that it’s hard not to embrace him.
Still, the majority of the novel belongs to young Byron and his strikingly competent mother, Diana. Checking the clock, she announces the hour “as if she were informing her watch of the correct time.” Her appearance reflects her efficiency: “With her slim skirts and pointy heels, her matching handbag and her notebook, Diana made other women look both oversize and underprepared.”
Byron’s father, Seymour, works in London during the week, but his edgy, disapproving presence hovers over the family, conveyed through tense phone calls to his wife and the strict household observance of his decrees. Diana’s feminine, if outdated, wardrobe is his preference, and meals are prepared to his tastes. But despite his domineering ways, Seymour is touchingly flawed, as much a prisoner of social expectations as is his wife. Joyce suggests the cruelty of masculinity when Byron wishes to hug his father, but “the embrace ran away at the last minute and became a handshake.”
One morning when the punctual family is running late, Diana takes a shortcut through a dismal neighborhood. At the moment Byron notices the second hand on his watch moving backward (the result of those disruptive two seconds, he presumes), Diana hits a girl riding her bicycle.
This accident eventually leads Diana to form a curious friendship with the girl’s mother. Driven not only by guilt but also by her conflicted feelings about her own less-than-perfect background and the life she leads as a married woman, Diana becomes lost between the person she once was and the role she has been playing, and her marriage becomes even more fractious. Byron can do nothing but watch his mother’s changes with dread and helplessness.
Joyce’s prose is precise and poetic, and the artistry of her writing does justice to both Byron’s nervous attentiveness and Jim’s elegiac perceptivity. But viewed through Byron’s eyes, the story often seems cloudy, especially in comparison with the heartbreaking clarity delivered by the limited narrators in Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and Emma Donoghue’s “Room.”
Nonetheless, the touches of quiet humor that lightened “Harold Fry” are also here, bright spots in the ambitious gloom. And Joyce offers some hope toward the end, as Jim struggles to break through his isolation and connect to Eileen, though the optimism sags under the weight of the rest of the novel.
“Perfect” is the kind of book that blossoms under thoughtful examination, its slow tendencies redeemed by moments of loveliness and insight. However sad, Joyce’s messages — about the limitations of time and control, the failures of adults and the fears of children, and our responsibility for our own imprisonment and freedom — have a gentle ring of truth to them.
Brown is the author of “The Weird Sisters.”
By Rachel Joyce
Random House. 385 pp.